Homelessness is a growing issue in Chattanooga and if not addressed will have expensive and harmful repercussions on the health of our city and people’s lives and well-being. A review of data collected around homelessness for CICH’s 2018 Action Plan found an increase of 37% in the overall number of people who were homeless from 2016 to 2018 in Hamilton County. In 2016, 1,477 people experienced homelessness in Hamilton County vs. 2,024 people in 2018.
The 2018 Action Plan found several reasons for this increase. First, as Chattanooga’s economy grows and wages increase, the price of housing also increases. People in poverty are one crisis away from losing their home. After an eviction, finding housing that is affordable for one’s income is increasingly difficult because of rising prices.
Second, people in poverty are finding it increasingly more difficult to find a job with a living wage in Chattanooga’s strong job market. With record low unemployment rates, Chattanooga employers can be more selective meaning people with unreliable transportation, criminal records, unstable housing, poor health, or disabilities are left behind.
Finally (and most importantly), once homeless, it is difficult for an individual to find housing and employment to increase their wages and benefits in Chattanooga, meaning the amount of time someone is homeless is prolonged, and issues regarding health, criminal record, and lack of income exacerbate. This is due to a lack of funding to assist with housing and staff to find people experiencing homelessness, assist them with securing housing, and support them to improve their income and stability afterwards. Although the homeless population has been growing, local resources to address the issue have been relatively flat, and some state and federal programs to address homelessness have even been reduced.
If the growing homeless population is not addressed, taxpayers will be left to pay the cost. According to a review of 33 studies in the U.S. and Canada by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, a person experiencing chronic homelessness costs taxpayers an average of $35,578 per year, but if that person is placed into permanent supportive housing, the costs are reduced by 49.5% to $12,800 per year. In 2019, Chattanooga had approximately 383 individuals and 61 families who were chronically homeless. Federal resources provided permanent housing for approximately 80 of these individuals, leaving 303 individuals and families chronically homeless. These 303 individuals and families who cannot access permanent housing will cost taxpayers of $10.8 million each year they are homeless vs. $3.8 million a year if they were stably housed, a difference of about $7 million per year in taxpayer dollars.
Our failure to address this issue locally is due to a lack of resources, a lack of a coordinated strategy to apply resources to, and poor systems and processes that cause long periods of homelessness. Homeless service providers rely on federal funding and local private giving to provide their services, and this funding has not increased to meet the scale of the issue. Finally, programs and services are decentralized with high barriers to access, meaning difficulties and barriers for a person experiencing homelessness to access and navigate them. To address these needs, CICH created the 2018 Homelessness Action Plan for the Chattanooga Community which is a comprehensive plan to meet our local needs. It includes raising funds and support to meet these needs, implementing new programs and projects according to the plan, and coordinating staff and leadership across agencies to improve and streamline processes and systems.